Most people, the Underground Gourmet included, don’t go to Chinese restaurants for salad. And yet there we were the other night, at the handsome month-old Yunnan Kitchen, positively surrounded by leafy greens. On one side of our small wooden table stood a tangle of fresh mint mingled with frisée and cherry tomatoes, meticulously dressed with a mysterious substance called mountain-flower oil. On the opposite side, looking like an advertisement for vitamins A and C and various essential minerals, lay a thatch of weedy chrysanthemum leaves drizzled with sesame vinaigrette. Center stage was a healthful plate of yuba (tofu skin) shot through with cilantro, chiles, and more of that aromatic mint.
This was not, as it might appear to a scandalized carnivore, the UG’s horrifying descent into the world of spa cuisine. It was, rather, a sampling of three small plates under the “Cold” section of the menu, and a toothsome introduction to the food of an underrepresented province in New York’s Chinese-food galaxy. So, other than apparently being big on salad, what can be deduced about the Yunnanese diet?
To answer that question, we proceeded to work our way through the small-plates menu, which also includes categories for “Hot,” “Shao Kao” (or grilled skewers), and “Rice & Noodles.” It’s the handiwork of chef Travis Post, and the result of a marathon eating tour he took with Yunnan Kitchen owner Erika Chou through the Yunnanese restaurants of Shanghai and Beijing, where the province’s cuisine seems to be as trendy as New Nordic is here. Post’s menu is clearly as much a product of his background in top-notch locavore kitchens like Franny’s and Bklyn Larder as it is of his Chinese junket. Without having ever experienced the cuisine in its home province, we can safely say that we’ve never had Chinese food that tasted fresher or lighter.
Wild mushrooms, cured ham, and edible flowers, we were to learn, all factor into the cooking of Yunnan, which borders Vietnam, Myanmar, Laos, Sichuan, and Tibet. These ingredients resurface throughout the meal, and specials tend to spring from that day’s Greenmarket haul: One night’s snap-pea salad was seasoned with garlic, charred ginger, and a notable burst of green chile, and strewn with chive blossoms. Flowers also show up in a swirl of softly scrambled eggs, dotted with cherry-tomato slivers and jasmine-flower buds, an unfamiliar flavor but one that transforms a common dish into something new.
A characteristically subtle Vietnamese influence comes across in the braised beef rolls, compact bundles of cucumbers, chives, and mint wrapped in thin slices of meat, a nifty study in contrasting textures and clean flavors. Herbs are treated as marquee ingredients, major players in the composition of a dish, as in the fried lime leaves that accompany whole shrimp in their shells.
And then there is the matter of Yunnan spices, a houseground blend heavy on the cumin, with a good Sichuan-peppercorn kick. It’s liberally sprinkled, especially over the grilled skewers of meat and vegetables, and brings everything it touches to tongue-tingling life: squares of marinated tofu, fingerlings and shishito peppers, and what might be the juiciest lamb meatballs in town. The tamarind-laced cold shredded chicken is paired with both mashed and fried taro, and a stir-fry of lemongrass-infused chicken, spring onions, and fried cubes of Chinese steamed buns eats like a Yunnanese version of Zuni Café’s roast chicken and bread salad. Technique is manifest in fried potato balls, remarkably crisp, light, and as fluffy within as if Joël Robuchon were on potato-mashing duty. And sourcing is paramount: The ham that enriches a comforting bowl of chewy rice cakes comes from pork whisperer Allan Benton, and the fried rice’s “Chinese sausage” is custom-cured by Salumeria Biellese. (We’d recommend both over the cold rice noodles, which, though nicely dressed, were more room temp, and a bit too soft for our taste.) All these details translate into an experience that’s interpretively Yunnanese, respectfully Chinese, and stylistically New York.
79 Clinton St., nr. Rivington St.; 212-253-2527
Hours: Wednesday through Monday 5 to 11 p.m.
Prices: Small plates, $5 to $13.
Ideal Meal: Mint salad, lamb meatballs, shredded chicken salad, ham rice cakes.
Note: Until the liquor license arrives and a dessert menu is offered, we recommend stopping for a sherry cocktail at Francesca, and a warm peanut-butter chocolate-chip cookie at DessertTruck up the street.
Scratchpad: Three stars for the brightly flavored, unequivocally fresh, and offbeat small plates, and another for the polished service and comfortable setting.
This story appeared in the June, 11, 2012 issue of New York Magazine.